Dealing with People Challenges

by Cindy Coan

What do you do when you have someone on your team who is not pulling their weight or creating challenges?

How do you address these issues in a way that will be perceived in a positive light and will inspire change?

It happens to all of us, people challenges consume a great deal of time for managers and project managers.  How you handle them is important.  Your first reaction or impulse is most often not the most effective one.  Telling someone what they have done wrong or how they are not measuring up is often not the most effective way to get them to change their behavior.  And if it does work, it may have side-effects that are even more unpleasant than the initial offending behavior.

The first take a good look at the issue.   Typically, the symptom is what you will see, but it is not the true issue.  You want to address the true issue.  Which means you may have to ask about the behavior before suggesting the changed behavior.

Let’s look at this scenario. . .

Mark is the owner of a company that develops mobile apps. He has several teams working for him; a development team, a marketing group, and a sales team.  The development team is the largest group and on a different floor than Mark’s office. The development team is on a tight timeline to deliver the next release.  Mark meets with the leaders of each of managers, including the development manager, Eric, each week.  He trusts them and things are progressing.

One morning Mark decides to stop by to see Eric in development before going to his office.  It is 8 am and Eric, the manager, is the only person in the development group in the office.   Mark speaks with Eric and continues on with his morning.  But he is angry.  How can the team be working hard if there is no one in the office at 8 am?  Don’t they know how important it is to meet this deadline?  After chatting with his colleagues and fuming over the issue for a few hours, he calls Eric to his office.  Mark tells Eric that he wants to establish a new policy; everyone must be in the office by 8 am.

Problem solved, right?  No, unfortunately because Mark was only looking at a symptom, he was seeing a problem where none existed.  He was mandating an 8 am start time, thinking he would get more working hours out of the team if they started earlier.

The Symptom      =          No developers are at the office at 8 am.

The Goal               =          Ensure that the developers are putting in the necessary hours to get the work done.  Get the most from his staff.

Mark needed to let go of the symptom that infuriated him earlier in the day and focus on his goal.  Then start asking questions.  Find out why folks were not coming into the office in the early morning.

  • Was this just an anomaly? Or did this happen every day?
  • How late was the development staff at the office?
  • Did folks work at home as well?
  • Were there reasons why individuals needed special hours?

In just asking a few questions he would have found that the development team traditionally rolled into the office between 9 and 11 am.  Which sounds like a lacks environment.  Keep asking questions and he would find that they often worked until 10 or 11 pm.   There was another factor; the testing team started work at 4 pm. Many of the developers needed to interact with this group and had started coming in later in the morning so they could stay until 6 or 7 pm – allowing them to work with the testers for a few hours.  All of this was good stuff – but Mark didn’t see it.

By creating this new mandate, he created a more unpleasant side-effect.  The team was offended that he did not know about how committed they already were and how many hours they were putting in each day.  In response to his mandate, the development staff began leaving the office promptly at 5 pm each day.   Although Mark did resolve the symptom; the whole development team was in the office at 8 am each day.  He didn’t get what he wanted.  Not only did he reduce the hours his team was putting in on the project, he also insulted his team, which also had an impact on the team’s morale.

Be sure you are achieving what you want – look deeper than the symptoms on the surface.

When you are ready to address the issue, take the time to set up the right environment.
  • Clear your mind & let go of your anger
    Even if you are sure they are sabotaging your project, or simply being mean. Clear your mind of the negative thoughts.  Going into the conversation with a preconceived notion of why they are behaving in such a way will mean you won’t be able to listen to them.
If you are angry or upset about what they have done or if you are angry about something else, take some time to let that go first.
  • Pull them aside
    You may need to schedule one-on-one time, or simply take them aside. But whatever you do, don’t address a problem in front of others.  This is a bullying tactic.  You are possibly embarrassing them or you may find that others don’t share your view.  Either way addressing something in public is never a good plan.
  • Know what you want to be different
    Even though you don’t know “why” they are causing issues; you should know what you want them to change and be prepared to be flexible.
The Talk

Start by telling them that you have something important to discuss. Approach the issue with the appropriate level of seriousness.   Be prepared to give them some positive feedback first.  Let them know that you are having this conversation because you value their contribution.  Give them a couple of compliments.  Be specific.  The conversation can’t be all negative – they won’t hear you.  Now, talk about their behavior.  What you saw, what you experienced, and what you know to be true.  Don’t make assumptions and use “I’ statements.

“I noticed you were late yesterday.”


“You were late yesterday.”


“I have not received your status report this week.”


“You never turn in your status reports.”

And then listen.   Ask them how they see the situation.  Let them know how their behavior impacts the project or the organization.  Ask how they can improve or change the situation.   This should be a discussion, not an edict from you.  Come up with a joint plan to correct the issue and determine if you need to follow up later.  If follow-up is needed, schedule that now.

“Let’s check in next Tuesday to see how you are doing.”

This way you can keep your conversation private.  Don’t publicly refer to this discussion.  This should remain a private discussion between you and the staff person you are trying to coach.   Scheduling a follow up discussion will also let them know you expect a change and that you intend to follow up.

When dealing with people challenges, be sure you are addressing the real issue not the symptom and take the time to consider how you approach the issue.   You want to achieve your goal with a minimum of side-effects.

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